On the Speaking Easy Podcast, we profess not just a love for fresh ingredients, but that using fresh, real ingredients—citrus juices, minimally processed sugars, and what-not—is what separates a mediocre drink from a great one for the home bartender. If you don’t believe us, try a Whiskey Sour with fresh lemon juice and real sugar next to one with store-bought Sour Mix. Even novice drinkers will notice a difference: a fresh Sour is vibrant, bright, and tastes clean; a store-bought sour mix will make your mouth have a syrupy mouthfeel (a gross word in-and-of-itself), and not have the same pop of a fresh one. Plus, the store-bought mixes often have other chemical preservatives or dyes that just don’t add up. So, keep it fresh, we say.
But it’s not just sour mixes where you can do this—you can, with a little know-how and some patience, infuse your own liquors (home-infused orange vodka is amazing; chemically-added orange flavoring in a store-bought vodka is just gross), make simple syrups, and even flavored sodas.
Below we’re going to give a basic overview of each of these processes and a recipe for each to try this weekend. Let’s get cookin’.
We could probably do an entire episode on infusions, as entire books have been written on the topic (BOOKS). Alcohol is great at extracting flavor from fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as other flavors (yes, bacon included). When you buy store-bought, you can’t control what’s in there, and why risk that with you and your guests? Take control of your bar with home infusions.
Sample Infusion: Lime Vodka
- 2 Cups Vodka
- 5-6 Limes
- 1/3 cup sugar
Peel the limes, getting as little of the pith (the white part) as possible, and drop those peels into a wide-mouth mason jar or other wide-mouthed re-sealable container (the wide-mouth is important for getting all the peels both in and our). Then add the sugar followed by the vodka. Seal the top and shake for about 30 seconds. Then let it sit in a cool, dry place for 3-5 days, depending on how strong you want the lime flavor, and make sure to shake the container about once a day. Once it’s done, pour through a mesh strainer and let it mellow for a day or two. Then enjoy it within a few weeks for best flavor. This makes for one helluva vodka sour.
A simple syrup is named as such because they are just a one-to-one ratio of sugar and water, with the sugar dissolved into the sugar on low heat. But why stop with just sugar? Infusing other flavors can be a great way to bring a ton of flavor into your next Old Fashioned, calm the bite of your next Whiskey Sour, or make an intriguing contrast in your next Margarita.
A word on ratios: some recipes will ask for a “rich” simple syrup, which is a 2:1 ratio of sugar : water, but made the same way otherwise.
Sample Simple Syrup: Thyme Simple Syrup
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- About 5-6 sprigs of fresh thyme
Combine the sugar, water, and thyme in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved, and then remove from heat to cool. Once cool, you can bottle it for up to 2-3 weeks, and use in a number of drinks, especially in a savory Old Fashioned.
It can be tempting to just mix your liquor with soda—just the addition of that one ingredient can take down the flavor of any liquor and let you get back to your fun. But we ask you, we beg you, we implore you, to just take a little extra time and let your liquor do the work for you. What do we mean by this? Gins and Vodkas may not take a lot of time to make, but a lot of whiskies, brandies, tequilas, and mezcals are aged for quite some time, in a fairly controlled environment, and for you to just slosh them down with an overly-sugary store-bought soda seems a bit rude. Homemade sodas allow you to get the same effect—an easy-drinking, flavorful combination—but without all the chemicals and fake sugars that can’t possibly be good for you. Plus, you will probably also be saving a bit of money, and getting so much more out of the liquor that our friends in the spirits industry spent so long to get to you in a bottle.
Sample Soda: Grapefruit Soda
- 1 cup Grapefruit juice
- 2 cups Soda Water
- 3 tbsp agave syrup (or use the Thyme Simple Syrup we talk about above)
- 2 pinches of sea salt
If you have a home soda machine, then make some soda water first. If not, regular store-bought soda works as well. Combine the ingredients and gently swirl them together (if you’ve ever been a Rodeo clown or 10-year old, you know what shaking soda will do, so stir or swirl this combo, preferably not closed). The salt is optional, but trust us, you’re going to want just a touch of savory flavor when you make the best Paloma on the block—or anywhere else for that matter.